Machine learning models inaccurately predict current and future high-latitude C balances

Abstract The high-latitude carbon (C) cycle is a key feedback to the global climate system, yet because of system complexity and data limitations, there is currently disagreement over whether the region is a source or sink of C. Recent advances in big data analytics and computing power have popularized the use of machine learning (ML) algorithms to upscale site measurements of ecosystem processes, and in some cases forecast the response of these processes to climate change. Due to data limitations, however, ML model predictions of these processes are almost never validated with independent datasets. To better understand and characterize the limitations of these methods, we develop an approach to independently evaluate ML upscaling and forecasting. We mimic data-driven upscaling and forecasting efforts by applying ML algorithms to different subsets of regional process-model simulation gridcells, and then test ML performance using the remaining gridcells. In this study, we simulate C fluxes and environmental data across Alaska using ecosys, a process-rich terrestrial ecosystem model, and then apply boosted regression tree ML algorithms to training data configurations that mirror and expand upon existing AmeriFLUX eddy-covariance data availability. We first show that a ML model trained using ecosys outputs from currently-available Alaska AmeriFLUX sites incorrectly predicts that Alaska is presently a modeled net C source. Increased spatial coverage of the training dataset improves ML predictions, halving the bias when 240 modeled sites are used instead of 15. However, even this more accurate ML model incorrectly predicts Alaska C fluxes under 21st century climate change because of changes in atmospheric CO2, litter inputs, and vegetation composition that have impacts on C fluxes which cannot be inferred from the training data. Our results provide key insights to future C flux upscaling efforts and expose the potential for inaccurate ML upscaling and forecasting of high-latitude C cycle dynamics.
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Environmental Research Letters
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